By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 14, 2021
CARROLLTON—An email in Norma Rothschadl’s inbox brought a new program to the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Rothschadl has been the Catholic campus minister at the University of West Georgia (UWG) since 2019. She is the only staff member, working to care for the center’s needs and its students.
When the University of Notre Dame in Indiana reached out to Rothschadl regarding its Echo Graduate Service Program, she was excited for the opportunity.
“It’s been a great relief to have an extra hand,” she said. “It’s been phenomenal.”
Housed in the McGrath Institute for Church Life, “the Echo Program was created in 2004 to respond to the growing need for a new generation of parish catechetical leaders,” said Colleen Moore, director of the program.
The Echo Program provides an opportunity for students earning a master’s degree in theology at the University of Notre Dame to serve at a parish or school for two years in one of nearly 20 dioceses. This is the first time the Archdiocese of Atlanta is partnering with the program.
Three Notre Dame students, known as apprentices, arrived at their locations in the Atlanta Archdiocese in August to start their two years of work. The apprentices are serving the Catholic Center at UWG, St. Mary Magdalene Church and St. George Church, both in Newnan.
Apprentices work full time during the academic year at their assignments and return to the university campus during the summer for course work. The archdiocese provides housing for the apprentices and each assigned location pays their apprentice a stipend.
“Echo was established to connect young, faithful, aspiring Catholic leaders to dioceses with parishes interested in benefiting from the Echo students’ evangelizing presence and creative ministry, and nurturing further the development of these young leaders,” said Moore.
Mary Mertes, 24, is working with Rothschadl at the campus ministry in Carrollton. She is in her first year at Notre Dame. A cradle Catholic and native of Kansas City, Mertes received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Missouri. She worked at the university’s Newman Center for two years.
Notre Dame students are referred to as Echo apprentices.
“An internship is typically an opportunity for a student to get a sense of the field they want to work in by shadowing someone or serving in an assistant role,” said Mertes. “While there are aspects of that in Echo, our apprenticeship is a hands-on leadership formation experience that teaches us how to work in ministry with support and guidance from our mentor.”
At UWG, Mertes is leading a Bible study for students, plans and provides music for Sunday Masses, handles liturgical needs and meets weekly with students to talk about faith.
“College is such a unique time when young adults ask big questions of the faith and measure it against everything else making demands of their time in a new way,” said Mertes. “I was lucky to have some amazing friends who accompanied me as I returned to the church, and I feel blessed to get to do the same for the young people in Carrollton.”
A living example
Echo comes from the Greek word “catechist” which means “to echo into,” derived from “kata” (meaning “into”) and “ekhein” (meaning “to echo”).
The primary dimensions of the Echo Program are the master’s degree in theology, service to the Catholic Church in a parish or school and integrative human, communal and spiritual formation.
“We think each of our students has something really important to offer the church,” said Moore. “And Echo’s there to help provide the opportunity for young people to serve the church.”
After Rothschadl received the email about Echo, she contacted Allen Austin, associate director of campus and young adult ministries for the Atlanta Archdiocese. Austin learned that two additional parishes had to participate to bring the program to the archdiocese.
Bringing in the additional parishes was easier than expected, said Austin.
“And after that we were rolling,” he added.
In need of additional support for the parish’s faith formation program, Father Randy Mattox, pastor of St. George Church, welcomed the Echo Program to the Newnan parish.
Father Mattox wanted someone on staff who was well educated, living Catholic life to the fullest and had good moral character, said Martha Vahanian, director of faith formation at St. George Church. With the Echo Program, the apprentices have these qualities and the stipends are affordable for parishes.
Riley Lochhead, 22, arrived at St. George Church in August. A cradle Catholic, she received a bachelor’s degree in theology from Boston College.
Playing soccer in her undergraduate career prevented Lochhead from attending Mass regularly and getting involved in the Catholic campus ministry. This made the Echo Program very appealing.
“I was really drawn to the fact that these two years would give me the time to really focus on my relationship with God in a really intentional way,” she said.
At St. George, Lochhead teaches first year confirmation prep classes for ninth graders, works with the parish homebound ministry and assists with faith formation tasks.
Vahanian describes Lochhead as vibrant, energetic and positive.
The youth “see her living her faith, not because her parents are making her, but because it makes her happy to be Catholic,” said Vahanian.
A discernment process
“Since 2004, Echo has placed nearly 320 students for two years of service in 23 dioceses and has graduated nearly 260 young leaders,” said Moore. “Over 90 percent of Echo graduates remain in full-time ministry after graduation and many accept parish, school and diocesan leadership positions in their Echo placement diocese or another Echo partner diocese.”
Eleanor Reed, 23, is the Echo apprentice working at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Newnan. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minored in animal science from Ohio State University. She is a cradle Catholic originally from University Place, Washington.
Reed was struck by how personable the Echo Program seemed to be and how it cares for students.
“I’m still discerning what my work will look like for the rest of my life, and this is a really great way to do it by learning, growing deeper in my faith,” she said.
At St. Mary Magdalene, Reed is helping with Families Forming Disciples, the family faith formation program created by the Office of Formation and Discipleship. She also works with adult faith sessions, the teen group, meets parish ministry leaders and plans to film videos that can be uploaded to the church’s website.
“Professionally, she has filled some of the gaps that we had,” said Kathy Kelly-Huey, director of faith formation at St. Mary Magdalene Church. “Coming off of the COVID year, we weren’t sure what our formation was going to look like and we actually changed the processes.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by theology, and then to actually get out and be working with people and be hands on and be in ministry, if this is what I fall in love with and what I want to do forever, then I’ll do that,” said Reed.
Forming lay leaders
Unlike many lay Catholics who fall into church work and are later formed, Kelly-Huey was interested in developing lay ministers who are formed to be professionals.
“These are people who want to serve the church, they want to be formed professionally and spiritually,” she said.
Since Mertes’ arrival in August to the Catholic Center at UWG, Rothschadl has seen an increase in students and their engagement. “We’re even seeing that maturity of their faith growing,” said Rothschadl.
While serving as a mentor in this capacity is new for Rothschadl, it’s given her perspective on the church intentionally preparing lay leaders.
“In order to well equip future leaders, programs like this are so necessary,” said Rothschadl. “I see the beauty of what Mary can bring to a parish someday–really being well equipped to do the work not only because she has the academic knowledge to be well prepared to do it, but she’s actually had experience in a mentorship.”
Vahanian believes the Echo Program is “a wonderful program for the church at large” and hopes more parishes will participate in the coming years.
“We have to, as a church, really be more intentional about raising new, well equipped lay leaders to work in ministry,” said Rothschadl.
“Going forward, we hope to expand Echo to meet the growing need for young, faithful, evangelizing leadership in the church,” said Moore.